A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 120 mins.
Paul: William H. Macy / Miriam: Sharon Stone / Timmons: Christian Slater / John Casey: Anthony Hopkins / Virginia Fallon: Demi Moore / Nelson: Harry Belafonte / Jack: Martin Sheen / Tim Fallon: Emilio Estevez / Diane: Lindsay Lohan
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez
Robert F. Kennedy was one of the more intriguing and beloved political figures of the 20th Century. Because of this, it sure is frustrating to see his story be told as a vague and enigmatic backdrop to a series of tired, formulaic, and uninspiring melodramas that could have occupied a weekly episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Emilio Estevez's BOBBY takes great pains to be a fitting tribute to the man, but it washes away any pretense of worth by submerging the film with an endless series of wooden and disinteresting characters that I all wanted to see aboard the doomed Poseidon and eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean.
It has been said widely in the press - by his own admission - that BOBBY was Estevez’s dream project that he has tried to make all of his life. He struggled with the screenplay for over seven years before he managed to get it “right” to see the light of day as a full-fledged feature. By “right” I am assuming that Mr. Estevez is saying that he wanted to make a preachy, overly sentimental, and soap opera masquerading as a political/history film that has far too many redundant and underdeveloped stock characters that even a grand 1970's disaster picture could hold. BOBBY is a film that has its heart in the right place, but its head seems vacant from the process. The script is simply paint-by-numbers.
This is a real shame, because BOBBY kind of pushes its title character to the background. Kennedy's story is ripe with hope, promise, and tragedy. In 1968, the 42-year-old New York Democratic Senator looked poised to follow in his big brother’s footsteps to the White House and usher in a newly evocative era of American prosperity. His aims were challenging and inspiring for his time. When running he stood on a Presidential ticket of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power, and social improvement. A crucial element to his campaign was an engagement with the young, whom he identified as being the future of a reinvigorated American society based on partnership and equality.
He stood steadfastly for the impoverished and for minority groups and desperately challenged his country to strive for strong civil rights for all its citizens and to reduce the disparity between the rich and poor. He further stood against ground troops in Vietnam, a war that he found ruthlessly unnecessary for US involvement. If anything, Bobby Kennedy was easily considered a hero by many. He can be summed up in his own words: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” There is no doubt that Kennedy was a beacon of hope that was quickly darkened by an assassin's bullet and his untimely death in summer of 1968 at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.
I have no doubt that Estevez is deeply passionate about Kennedy’s legacy and with the possibilities of “what if” he went on to office and was not shot to death by a 24-year old Palestinian. I also have little doubt that he wanted BOBBY to be a grand homage and very fitting bit of hero worship for a fallen political figure that both he and many Americans still hold dear to their hearts. The story of Robert Kennedy is of intense historical interest. Although we are a much more racially tolerant society today, we still live in an age of polarizing US involvement in overseas wars and military operations, not to mention a time of ever-increasing human rights violations and intense poverty both at home and abroad. Kennedy’s words speak volumes for 2006 and 1960. Yet, Estevez’s handling of this important political and historical figure is so heavy handed, so trivial, and so overstuffed with stereotyped characters, wretched clichés, and forced social commentary that one has to wonder whether his own hopes as a filmmaker superseded his actual directorial and writing abilities as a filmmaker.
Firstly, Estevez makes the wrong move at trying to tell a story of multiple characters and multiple storylines in manners that made the late Robert Altman a master storyteller. Estevez is no Altman, that much is certain. Estevez employs a kaleidoscopic outlook on the characters, searching for and showing us people from different classes and different circumstances all held together by their shared experience of being at the same hotel on the same day that Bobby was killed. The trouble is that Estevez makes most of them uninspiring and instantly forgettable. There are too many roles in the film that are too vastly undeveloped to make any reticent impact on the viewer. There are no flesh and blood personas in the film, just character types that came from the stock character factory.
We have the hotel’s now retired doorman recalling his glory years; the hotel’s passive black cook; the angry black campaign worker; the Latino waiters; the racist hotel restaurant manager; the aging alcoholic nightclub singer and her downtrodden husband; the hotel manager who sleeps with the help; the wife of the manager that sheepishly works at the hotel saloon; the young teenage campaign workers that like to do drugs; the hippy drug dealer; the young and idealistic college kids that marry to avoid the Vietnam draft…and so on and so on. I grew dizzy just trying to remember all of the characters and unrelentingly dull storylines that they are forced to inhabit when the larger story of Kennedy lies in the background. As we see all of their stories awkwardly flow in and out of each other it dawned on me that they are all essentially perfunctory to the conclusion of the film. They are time wasters and basically try to get us to the point where Kennedy is shot, the film fades to black, and we get the obligatorical title cards that says when Kennedy actually died at the hospital and what happened to the other wounded hotel victims. Well, laddie-fricking-dah.
I guess that there is something wholeheartedly unsavory about a filmmaker that tries to make cookie cutter melodrama out of one of the most painful moments of the US’s past. What’s truly amazing is the level of talent that a relative filmmaking novice like Estevez is able to round up. We are not talking B-grade talent, but a high caliber cast that includes multiple Oscar nominees and winners. The scope of the ensemble cast is astounding, especially when one considers how many favors Estevez must have called in and how most of these great actors allowed themselves to play mostly lifeless and bland roles without any genuine personality.
No formulaic character is left unchecked. All of them are involved in a story that centers at the Ambassador Hotel in June of 1968 where Robert Kennedy captured the California Democratic primary and looked like he was well on his way to facing off against rival Richard Nixon in the election. The Hotel was the home of RFK’s campaign headquarters and also the place of his unfortunate death. Sandwiched in with this real life location and moment in history is a myriad of fictitious characters and their day leading up the assassination.
Each character, of course, reflects and offers ruminations on the time they live in, oftentimes in clunky dialogue, some of which comes from the school of PATCH ADAMS for the painfully sentimentalized and gag inducing peachiness. We have the idealistic campaign workers played by Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon who desperately want a RFK victory. Then we have Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan as teens that are strangers to one another, but decide to marry at the hotel so that Wood does not have to fight in Vietnam. Lohan’s story touches on that of the hotel’s saloon worker, played by Sharon Stone (never looking more unattractive), whose own story is liked with the hotel manager (played by the usually dependable William H. Macy). Macy’s manager, it seems, is banging one of the hotel’s switchboard operators, played by Heather Graham.
Then there are the other characters. We meet the one-dimensional, bigoted restaurant manager, played by Christian Slater, who does not let his minority workers vote for reasons that seem legitimate (most of them are illegal immigrants who could not legally vote in the first place). Macy, of course, fires Slater after engaging in dialogue of would-be stirring and rousing convictions. Then we have the workers under Slater, two Latinos (played by Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas) who hate the fact that they have to work another double shift. One is especially sore that he’ll be missing Don Drysdale's hopeful sixth consecutive shutout for the Dodgers (gee, I wonder if we’ll get a scene where the racist restaurant manager and the minorities will bond by listening to the game on the radio while at work…yup!). Mixed in is a metaphor for passive resistance to whitey by - you guessed it - Laurence Fishburne, who dishes out Morpheus-like musings on peace and harmony for mankind like he just read them off of fortune cookies.
And then on to the other characters. We get the drunken singer who slowly grows to learn that…hey…she’s a mean drunk and that she abuses her husband. She’s played by former Brat Pack star Demi Moore and her husband is also, fittingly, a former Brat Pack star as well, played Estevez. Emilio’s Daddy , Martin Sheen, is even in for the ride as a middle aged depressed man who has an attractive younger wife (Helen Hunt, not looking all that young) who is forced – gasp! – to take her shopping for black shoes because she forgot to bring them to wear with her black dress for the gala later that day. They bond while shopping and realize their real love for one another. Yippie! Finally, we have the story of two AWOL RFK campaign workers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty) who waste their day doing drugs supplied by the LSD induced Ashton Kutcher, the latter who gives a performance that truly typifies irritating. Whoops, silly me, I almost forgot Anthony Hopkins playing the retired hotel worker that reveals how his marriage fell apart because he was really married to the hotel. How heartbreaking!
None of these characters are compelling. None of these characters are involved in sub-plots that amount to anything meaningful and worthwhile. None of these characters add anything of substance to the larger and more tragic story of Kennedy’s death. In all, BOBBY is as witless and lethargic as daytime television. What’s truly disheartening is to see good talent be wasted in inconsequential roles that demand little of their actual talent. Most of their individual parts are so sketchily developed that – when they all spiral together in the end of the film and some of them are also victims of stray bullets from Kennedy’s assassin – I found it next to impossible to really care about any of them. The final moments that shows Kennedy’s fateful speech to the crowd followed by his shooting is undeniably strong and sad, but it is everything that came before it that is so bathed in moronic soap opera suds that I found it hard to care. BOBBY proves that star power alone can indeed create a monotonously dull film going experience.
If there is anything that Estevez does right it is in his portrayal of Bobby himself. He wisely reveals the man for the iconic figure that he is. He is seen in shadows and blurry shots in the background behind the principle actors, which reinforces his larger-than-life-stature. Furthermore, Estevez utilized stock historical footage of Kennedy speeches and his travels on the campaign tour. Watching a few of these clips made me wonder why Estevez did not just simply make a retrospective documentary about his fallen hero. Certainly, there is enough footage to be salvaged and enough people that could contribute commentaries to the piece. After sitting through BOBBY it’s abundantly clear that this would have been a much more fitting tribute to the man.
Emilio Estevez’s would-be stirring, heart-warming, and inspirational fictional-historical film BOBBY deserves modest merits for placing Robert F. Kennedy as being one of the more significant political voices of the 1960’s. The fatalistic flaw of the film is that it attempts to revisit history by fictionalizing it in the form of 22 unnecessary characters that are all so vastly undeveloped and hackneyed to the point where the celebrities stand apart more than their roles do. What’s even worse is the fact that BOBBY’s claptrap and clichéd-ridden theatrics do a sharp injustice to the legendary legacy of RFK. Instead of being a virtuoso exercise in revisiting history for a better understanding of it, Estevez feels that the best way to remember Bobby Kennedy is through the eyes of an endless series of pointless stock characters whose stories bare little emotional and relative weight. BOBBY wants to be a powerful and assured ensemble character drama, but it plays madly like Robert Altman for Dummies. For a work that pains to lament on the lost idealism of the 1960’s and the downfall of one of its champions, Estevez’s BOBBY is excruciatingly inert and embarrassingly mediocre. The film is a less-than-subtle NASHVILLE wannabe from a filmmaker that simply is not skilled enough to make something so polished. BOBBY is a sad film, but in unintentional ways.